Category Archives: Publications – Press Releases

LIFE BaĦAR for N2K Conference on Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean

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The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) hosted a successful 4 day international conference on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Mediterranean as part of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project between the 11th and 14th September. The conference presented the current activities being undertaken in relation to the project and MPAs in Malta, and brought together 95 participants from seven Mediterranean States, including a wide range of local stakeholders from government entities, the private sector, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and research institutes, as well as members of the general public.

The results presented are part of the ongoing LIFE BaĦAR project which has the aim of designating new MPAs for reefs and caves and is linked with ERA’s current consultation process on the setting up of management plans for MPAs.

During this conference, the work done and results of the project were presented by members of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project team within the ERA, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Department of Biology of the University of Malta, and Oceana.

Speakers from ERA described the efforts made on the Natura 2000 network in Malta and related challenges and provided an overview of ongoing work to develop management measures for MPAs alongside with the ongoing implementation of the national marine monitoring programme.

Foreign experts shared their experience on a national and regional level on the management of marine protected areas and monitoring methods for reefs, marine caves and seagrass beds. Speakers included representatives from the European Union Commission, the United Nations Regional Activity Centre on Specially Protected Areas (RAC/SPA) and the Mediterranean Marine Protected Areas Network (MedPAN), as well as leading experts on reefs, marine caves and seagrass beds from various research institutes.

Participants also engaged in discussions on management and monitoring aspects as an opportunity to exchange views, ideas and experiences and discuss how challenges could be addressed, both in plenary Q&A sessions as well as focused breakout sessions.

The conference was fundamental to provide insights on common challenges faced by different Mediterraean countries in relation to effective MPA management, and kick-starting the management planning processes for local MPAs, which requires strong institutional cooperation. Local stakeholders and other conference participants noted that a participatory approach is key to effective protection, with users and stakeholders of the marine environment having a key role to play in the management of protected areas.

Link to ERA press release

 

Starfish with 10 to 11 arms spotted in the Mediterranean

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Marine scientists have discovered a population of a species of starfish with 10 and 11 arms living more than 200 m below the surface in waters off Malta (central Mediterranean). These starfish were spotted using an underwater robot during an at-sea survey as part the Life BaĦAR for N2K project, which aims to identify new marine areas for possible designation as marine protected areas.

A post-expedition biological analysis of the starfish confirmed the species to be Coronaster briareus, a starfish that usually has ten or eleven arms. This starfish was previously reported from the western Atlantic, where it is found from the United States to Brazil, but it has never been reported in the Mediterranean Sea, until now.

“This is a quite a discovery. What we don’t know for sure is how or why these starfish are in the Mediterranean. Either they travelled a long way from the Atlantic into Mediterranean waters, or they simply had not been spotted earlier because the animals were observed in deep waters, says Ricardo Aguilar, Senior Research Director at Oceana in Europe.

In total, scientists from the University of Malta and Oceana spotted 26 starfish at depths ranging from 240 to 562 metres. Some of the animals reached up to 25 cm in diameter and had a fiery-red colour and characteristic pom-pom-like white wreaths (known as pedicellariae) along the arms, giving the starfish a fuzzy appearance.

“The discovery of what has always been considered an Atlantic species in the central Mediterranean was a surprise to us all. The fact that such important discoveries are made during scientific surveys covering only a small proportion of the seabed once again goes to show just how little we know about the sea which surrounds the Maltese Islands”, says Prof. Patrick J. Schembri from the University of Malta’s Department of Biology.

It is clear that more surveys in the Mediterranean may be required to ascertain its presence in other parts of the Mediterranean and the adjacent Atlantic ocean.

The discovery of this new population of multi-armed starfish in the Mediterranean has been published in Marine Biodiversity, an international, peer-reviewed scientific journal and is just one of the many new findings resulting from the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project, co-financed by the EU LIFE+ Funding Programme and led by Malta’s Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), with the participation of the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change (MSDEC), the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Department of Biology of the University of Malta and Oceana as partners.

Link to Oceana press release

Littering problem discovered in the deep sea around the Maltese Islands

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As part of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project, 420,000 m2 of the deep seabed within the 25 nautical mile Fisheries Management Zone surrounding the Maltese Islands were explored during two expeditions in 2015 and 2016. Surveys with an underwater robot, equipped with a video camera, recorded the bottom down to depths of 1,040 m.

Scientists from the Department of Biology of the University of Malta, who are responsible for analysing the results, were surprised at the amount of litter they noted on the sea floor. Discarded fishing gear as well as plastic, glass bottles and metallic objects including rods, cables, discarded car parts and oil drums, have accumulated in the deep sea. In particular, discarded fishing gear such as trawl nets, nylon longlines and limestone slabs with synthetic ropes from the dolphinfish (‘lampuki‘ in Maltese) fishery were common at offshore sites.

Dolphinfish aggregation devices (‘kannizzati‘) are anchored to the sea floor with limestone slabs, and the mooring ropes are cut off and discarded at the end of each fishing season. The limestone slabs may cause direct damage to reef species when they are deposited on the bottom, while the long discarded ropes can become entangled with organisms such as vulnerable deep-water stony and gorgonian corals. Nylon lines from bottom longline fisheries targeting for example hake, greater forkbeard, and dogfish were frequently found entangled on deep-sea reefs.

Although offshore litter is a known problem, the extent revealed by these comprehensive video surveys of previously unexplored areas came as a surprise; litter was observed during every one of the more than 200 dives with the underwater robot, operated by Oceana.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project ultimately aims to ensure that vulnerable marine habitats, including deep water coral reefs, acquire protection through the designation of marine protected sites under Natura 2000, the European Union network that collectively safeguards the EU’s most valuable natural areas. The information gathered during the surveys will enable the formulation of more effective conservation measures to address the identified pressures, including marine litter and ghost fishing. An After-LIFE Conservation Plan detailing management and conservation activities after the project end date will be formulated through the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project to guide all the stakeholders involved.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project is co-financed by the EU LIFE+ Funding Programme, and is led by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), with the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change (MSDEC), the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA), the Department of Biology of the University of Malta (DoB-UoM) and Oceana as partners.

Press Release date 15 November 2016

Link to UoM Press Release

 

Limestone slab and rope from a dolphinfish aggregation device

Limestone slab and rope from a dolphinfish aggregation device

Rope from a dolphinfish aggregation device entangled on deep water reef

Rope from a dolphinfish aggregation device entangled on deep water reef

Rope from a dolphinfish aggregation device wrapped around precious red coral and deep-water stony corals

Rope from a dolphinfish aggregation device wrapped around precious red coral and deep-water stony corals

Fishing net wrapped around deep-water stony corals

Fishing net wrapped around deep-water stony corals

New world record: Malta has deepest known populations of precious red coral

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A new depth record for the precious red coral has been set, and it belongs to Malta! The deep sea around the Maltese Islands was investigated during two separate expeditions, in 2015 and 2016, as part of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project. During these surveys an underwater robot equipped with a video camera was used to explore the seabed down to depths of more than 1 km. The project scientists were surprised to find numerous colonies of the precious red coral (Corallium rubrum) growing down to depths of 1016 m – over 200m deeper than the previous record, also from Maltese waters.

The team of scientists from the NGO Oceana, who undertook the surveys, and the University of Malta’s Department of Biology, who were responsible for analysing the data, recently presented their findings at the 41st Congress of the International Commission for the Scientific Exploration of the Mediterranean (CIESM), which took place in Kiel, Germany from the 12 – 16 September 2016.

Prof. Patrick J. Schembri, from the University of Malta’s Department of Biology, explained that ‘red coral colonies are usually reported from depths ranging between 15 m and 300 m depth, and had never been recorded at depths beyond 800 m before. The colonies were part of a diverse community of living corals at depths of 300 to 1000 m. This record was a surprise to us all but it goes to show just how little we know about the sea which surrounds our own islands.’

Several other interesting findings made during the LIFE BAĦAR for N2K surveys were also presented at the CIESM congress. These included the discovery of a fossilised sponge reef at a depth of ca. 300 m, deep-water caves located at depths down to 450 m, as well as vast expanses of sand/mud habitats, inhabited by diverse communities of species including some rare and threatened ones.
Ricardo Aguilar, expedition leader and research director at Oceana in Europe, remarked that ‘Most of the sites where we encountered diverse coral reefs had never been researched before, and the findings of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project indicate that the deep-sea around Malta represents an important biodiversity hotspot’.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project, through which these expeditions were funded, ultimately aims to ensure that vulnerable marine habitats, including deep water reefs, acquire protection through the designation of marine protected sites under Natura 2000, the European Union network that collectively safeguards the EU’s most valuable natural areas. The information gathered during the surveys will enable the formulation of more effective conservation measures to address the identified pressures, including from marine litter and discarded fishing gear.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project is co-financed by the EU LIFE+ Funding Programme, and is led by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), with the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change (MSDEC), the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA), the Department of Biology of the University of Malta (DoB-UoM) and Oceana as partners.

Press Release date 7 October 2016

Link to UoM Press Release (English) and Press Release (Maltese)

Living red coral at 1010 m depth

Living red coral at 1010 m depth

Deep-water coral reef with red coral

Deep-water coral reef with red coral

 

Extensive marine research in Malta concludes after 140 days at sea

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This phase of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project at-sea study ends after having explored areas down to 1039 m deep

Oceana, the project partner tasked with carrying out marine surveys, has concluded its at-sea research in Malta to explore deep-sea areas, underwater caves and sandbanks within the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project.

The project, co-financed by the EU, and comprising the Environment and Resources Authority (project leaders), the Maltese Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, and the Department of Biology of the University of Malta, apart from Oceana, is the most comprehensive video survey of unknown marine areas ever undertaken in Malta and aims to achieve effective protection for three different habitats of high ecological value. Its preliminary findings include the identification of hundreds of species, large reefs of cold water corals and caves discovered 300 m below the surface.

The findings from Malta are impressive and include species that hadn’t previously been recorded in the Mediterranean. The footage and samples compiled will require years of analysis to be fully valued but in the shorter term they will serve as the basis to create marine protected areas that help preserve this natural heritage and restore its abundance. We hope that other countries undertake similar actions to improve their understanding and protection of their marine environments,” said Ricardo Aguilar, expedition leader and research director at Oceana in Europe.

The total surveyed area amounts to 2,974.72 km2, of which 2,923.80 km2 are offshore. In comparison, the total land surface of the Maltese archipelago is just 316 km2, which shows the extent and importance of this project. The project was divided in two expeditions (2015 and 2016), and utilised an ROV (underwater robot) able to reach depths of over 1000 m, and divers using underwater scooters to enhance speed. A total of 206 ROV transects (up to 1039 m deep) and 42 scuba dives were carried out.

During the surveys in deeper areas, the scientists discovered various reefs (white coral, black coral, stone sponges…), impressive forests of gorgonians and rare yellow corals. The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project will ensure these vulnerable species acquire valuable protection through the designation of protected sites under Natura 2000, the network that collectively safeguards the most valuable natural areas within the EU.

The project partners call on individuals to play a role in the preservation of the beautiful Maltese marine environment. The expedition has filmed many cases of marine pollution. Close to the shore, plastic waste was prevalent, whereas discarded fishing gear such as lines and weights were common offshore which frequently damage gorgonians and corals. Some of the dives had to be aborted because the ROV risked entanglement. In other spots, areas of bottom dominated by rhodoliths (calcareous red algae) were noticeably damaged due to bottom trawling and mooring.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project is co-financed by the EU LIFE+ Funding Programme and is led by the Environment and Resources Authority, with the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Department of Biology of the University of Malta and Oceana as partners.

Issued on 8th August 2016
Link to Oceana Press Release

Oceana embarks on 10-week expedition to explore deep-sea areas in Malta

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The at-sea campaign will complement findings carried out in 2015 and will lead to the designation of protected areas under Natura 2000

Oceana launched its second expedition on Thursday 26th May 2016 to document previously unexplored marine areas in Malta as part of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project. Scientists from several countries including Malta will research underwater caves, sand banks and reefs in order to provide the Maltese government with enough data to identify new Sites of Community Importance under Natura 2000, a network that gathers together areas of high ecological importance in the European Union.

This year, improvements to technical equipment have been incorporated to enhance the performance of the campaign team’s work. Such improvements, including the use of underwater scooters, will now allow divers to move faster and be able to spend more time documenting secluded caves. Additionally, a boat equipped with a multi-beam sonar will work in parallel to survey the underwater terrain. The sonar will also serve as a vital tool for scientists to be more precise when choosing research spots and will help increase the efficiency of Oceana’s Remotely Operated Robot (ROV), which is able to reach 1,000 metres deep.

“We are very excited about the final leg of our at-sea work in Malta. Last year’s findings include large coral reefs, undiscovered caves at great depths and species that were rare or had never been found in this part of the Mediterranean. Discovering so many ecologically-valuable features in a country famous for its diving spots proves that the true abundance of the sea is yet to be fully uncovered. The protection of these areas will allow for a better conservation of Malta’s rich marine heritage and eventually a healthier Mediterranean”, said Ricardo Aguilar, expedition leader and research director at Oceana in Europe.

Both expeditions will sum up a total of 120 days of intense work at sea on board Oceana’s research catamaran, the Ranger. In 2015, the field work lasted 52 days and included 106 dives carried out by the ROV and divers. The images gathered are still being analysed and, together with this year’s findings, will serve as the groundwork for the creation of marine protected areas.

LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project is co-financed by the EU LIFE+ Funding Programme and led by the Environment and Resources Authority in collaboration with the Maltese Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the University of Malta and Oceana.

Press Release Date 26 May 2016
Link to Oceana Press Release

 

European Commissioner Karmenu Vella visits ‘Oceana Ranger’

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Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, visited the research catamaran Oceana Ranger last Friday to learn about the scientific expeditions carried out by the international marine conservation organisation. A Maltese native, Mr Vella had the chance to get acquainted with the underwater research currently being conducted in Malta by Oceana, including filming deep-sea marine habitats and species.

“We are very grateful to Commissioner Vella for his interest in Oceana’s efforts to improve the protection and management of European seas. The findings of our marine research will support the Maltese authorities and help them create new marine protected areas. Marine protected areas are important for the safeguard of valuable underwater sites, and also contribute to fish recovery,” stated Lasse Gustavsson, executive director for Oceana in Europe.

Commissioner Vella’s trip to Malta coincided with a two-month expedition that Oceana is currently carrying out to survey deep-sea areas and underwater caves in the archipelago. This expedition is part of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project, which aims to extend existing marine Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) and to identify new SCIs in Maltese waters for inclusion within the Natura 2000 network. Currently, this network of protected areas only covers 4% of EU seas, the Maltese government have committed to protect 10% of their coastal and marine areas before 2020

As part of his visit, Commissioner Vella had the chance to visit the Oceana Ranger, which was moored in Valletta. The 21 metre-long catamaran is a functional vessel equipped with an ROV (Remotedly Operated Vehicle) able to film in high resolution, and it serves as a working platform for marine researchers and divers. During this expedition, scientists from the Department of Biology of the University of Malta have joined Oceana staff and have managed to research previously unknown areas of the sea bottom.

Oceana is a pioneering non-profit organisation in the use of ROVs to study deep-sea areas, which are commonly neglected in marine conservation initiatives. With the help of this first-hand research, Oceana prepares proposals envisaging a sustainable use of fishing resources and the preservation of marine biodiversity.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K (LIFE12 NAT/MT/000845) Project is 50% co-financed by the EU LIFE+ Funding Programme. It is coordinated by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority in association with the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the University of Malta and Oceana.

Press Release Date 19 July 2015
Link to Oceana Press Release

Elsa Pataky onboard the ‘Oceana Ranger’

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The actress and her husband, Chris Hemsworth, join an Oceana expedition to explore the depths of Malta

Elsa Pataky and her husband, Chris Hemsworth, spent a day with an ongoing expedition currently being carried out by Oceana to document previously unexplored the depths off the Maltese coast. It is the first time Oceana ambassador Elsa and her husband have visited the Oceana Ranger – the catamaran belonging to the international marine conservation organisation. Both Elsa and Chris were eager to help out with the on-board research and were particularly fascinated with the work carried out using the remote underwater robot, which can reach depths of up to 1000 metres.

“It’s amazing how little the sea bed has been studied, even in the Mediterranean sea, which is so close to civilization. Most people are unaware of the incredible marine life hundreds of metres below the surface of the water. One thing that shocked me whilst glimpsing the sea floor using the remote camera was the trash and impact of human activities in areas that should be protected. We must listen to scientists more and intensify our conservation efforts so we don’t lose such valuable biodiversity before we even know about it,” said Elsa Pataki, ambassador of Oceana since 2012.

Over the course of a busy day, Elsa Pataky and Chris Hemsworth participated in life onboard with the team of scientists, ROV (remotely operated vehicle) operators and crew. After sending the ROV down, they observed the relatively unexplored sea bed close to the island of Gozo (Malta) first hand. Important footage was captured which will be analysed intensively over the coming months in order to evaluate the most suitable forms of protection.

The Oceana expedition got under way on 1st June and will survey the unexplored Maltese sea floor, particularly the submerged caves, sandbanks and reefs. The expedition is part of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project, co-financed by the European Commission. The research aims to uncover important geological and ecological regions to be protected as Sites of Community Importance within the Red Natura 2000 network.

Elsa Pataky & Chris Hemsworth on board: Watch the video and photos

Press Release Date 22 June 2015
Link to Oceana Press Release

Oceana launches expedition into unknown maltese depths

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The project will map out previously unexplored regions in Malta using an ROV and advanced mapping equipment

Oceana launches a two-month expedition to survey deep sea areas and underwater caves in Malta. The at-sea campaign, included within the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project, will garner documentation on marine habitats and species so that new Sites of Community Importance can be protected under the Natura 2000 network. Many of these areas will be researched for the first time ever.

The project is co-financed by the EU LIFE+ Funding Programme and led by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA), in collaboration with the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the University of Malta and Fundación Oceana. Important marine habitats will be surveyed in selected areas between the Maltese coastline and the 25 nautical mile boundary and down to depths of 1000m below sea level.

“Very little of the deep sea in Malta has been documented due to the technological complexity of researching this environment. In fact, the marine surveys Oceana are conducting for the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project will be the only existing underwater images of many of the researched areas” explains Ricardo Aguilar, campaign director and expedition leader at Oceana in Europe. “We are very excited about this expedition because previous explorations into the Mediterranean have resulted in significant discoveries and have been fundamental in our pursuit of protecting important marine sites.”

Research and surveys will be carried out onboard the research catamaran Oceana Ranger using an ROV which reaches depths of up to 1000 metres recording in full HD. Marine scientists onboard the Ranger will prioritise the research of reefs, sandbanks and submarine caves, as these marine features must be protected under the Habitats Directive. Video, photos and seabed samples will be taken to ensure a better understanding of the areas surveyed.

Notes to the editor

LIFE BaĦAR for N2K is the second LIFE+ project partnered by Oceana. Earlier this year, LIFE+ INDEMARES concluded in Spain, resulting in 73,000 sqkm included under Natura 2000 network. Oceana was responsible for researching a seamount with similar technology as that to be used in Malta, and contributed information on some of the surveyed areas within the project.

The Natura 2000 is a network of protected areas throughout the EU and considered the largest coherent group of protected areas in the world. The Natura 2000 network was established in 1992 under the Habitats Directive, with the long term aim of protecting Europe’s most vulnerable and threatened species and habitats.

Press Release Date 4 June 2016
Link to Oceana Press Release
Link to Press Release in Maltese 

€2.6 MILLION INVESTED IN MARINE HABITATS

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Areas of interest within Malta’s Fisheries Management Zone will be surveyed in the coming months with the intent of mapping out the distribution of sandbanks, reefs and marine caves with the potential of designating new areas as Sites of Community Importance to eventually form part of the Natura 2000 network.

The €2.6 million LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project, which is 50% co-financed by the EU LIFE Funding Programme, is being led and co-ordinated by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) in collaboration with the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change (MSDEC), the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA), the Department of Biology of the University of Malta (UoM) and Fundación Oceana. The project seeks to make available new data and knowledge on the location and conservation status of the targeted marine habitats and others in the Maltese Islands, which up until today is very limited.

While various international agreements and legal instruments have been enacted to manage multiple human pressures and to protect the most vulnerable or ecologically important habitats, as an EU Member State, Malta, is obliged, under the Habitats Directive, to designate those habitats specified in Annex I of the Directive as, Sites of Community Importance.

Marine surveys, covering an estimated 200,000 hectares, will be carried out by Oceana, which will be working closely with the Maltese Partners. Oceana, is the largest international advocacy organisation focused solely on marine conservation. The surveys will be made by using a research vessel equipped with Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) as well as by the use of scuba diving. These will be complemented by bathymetric surveys using multibeam echosounder and sediment sampling, which work is currently subject to an international open call for tender. Benthic habitats will be surveyed in selected areas between the Maltese coastline and a 25 nautical mile boundary and down to depths of 1000m below sea level.

This project also ensures the active involvement and participation between all stakeholders during and after the whole project is final ised while it is also paving the way for conservation objectives and a platform that will guide the management of Marine Natura 2000 sites.

The Natura 2000 is a network of protected areas throughout the EU and it is considered the largest coherent group of protected areas in the world. The Natura 2000 network was established in 1992 under the Habitats Directive, with the long term aim of protecting Europe’s most vulnerable and threatened species and habitats.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K aims to extend existing marine Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) and identify new SCIs in Maltese waters for inclusion within the Natura 2000 network. The project is coordinated by MEPA in association with the Ministry for Sustainable Development and Climate Change, Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the University of Malta and Oceana. The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K (LIFE12 NAT/MT/000845) Project is 50% co-financed by the EU LIFE Funding Programme.

Press Release Date 21 May 2015
Link to MEPA Press Release